Commentary: Mark 13:24-37 Part 2
The lesson is from a passage known as the "Little Apocalypse," so named because of its use of material from Daniel. While the category "apocalypse" may be helpful in identifying some of the peculiar features of this chapter, it does little to illumine the function of Jesus' discourse within the whole narrative. In the context of the passion story, the action pauses to give time for a forecast: Jesus offers a prophetic glimpse of what is to come. One result is that the concluding events of Jesus' ministry are now understood in light of what will follow events reported in the Gospel story. The hostility Jesus will encounter from the religious and political authorities offers convincing evidence that the picture of the world Jesus has sketched is accurate; conversely, the treatment Jesus will receive is understood in light of a cosmic struggle that will end only with his return on the clouds. His death and resurrection are eschatological events whose significance will become clear only in the future. If Mark's story is the "beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ," the chapter characterizes this beginning ("the end is not yet") as the onset of birth pangs. Something is struggling to be born. As in nature, the process will involve struggle and pain.
Jesus' prophecies begin with a comment about the Temple. He promises there will not be left one stone on another that will not be thrown down. Many believe interest in the Temple's demise indicates that Mark wrote after the war against Rome, offering some sense of what the Temple's destruction means. Jesus' coming brings changes. Nothing is said here of the rejection of Israel—only the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Those who are its leaders—the scribes, chief priests, and elders—will reject Jesus (Psalm 118:22)—and will themselves be rejected.
Notable is the interweaving of cosmic and social imagery. While the faithful will find themselves at the mercy of destructive forces on a large scale—nations caught up in war, nature whose earthquakes and famines will test their resolve, and finally the heavens that will give signs of the end—they will also experience the disruption down to the most basic levels of existence. The battles will not be confined to the heavenly places. Families will be divided by the gospel; parents and children will go to war, even betraying one another. We can recall Jesus' comments earlier about true family: those who do the will of God are brothers and sisters and mother (3:31-35). Even the elect will discover there is no safe place. False prophets from within the community of believers will arise. Signs and wonders cannot be trusted in and of themselves. While the chapter is full of promises, Jesus sketches a world that is not hospitable to the gospel and will always be a dangerous place for the faithful.
Perhaps most interesting is the way the speech concludes. The little parable about the lord of the manor who leaves his slaves in charge of the household while he sets off on a journey provides the transition from the prophetic forecast to the story of Jesus' last hours. The "household" image is important from early in the story: in answer to the charge that he is possessed by an unclean spirit, Jesus uses a "parable" about plundering the house of a strong man (3:22-29). The "Kingdom of God" is like seizing control of the house. Jesus is the "stronger one" who has come to "rifle Satan's fold."
Here in offering a glimpse of the future, Jesus uses the image to speak of the setting in which discipleship will be lived out. The parable does not suggest utter poverty and suffering. His followers, in fact, will have authority and tasks to perform. The little figure emphasizes not the trials and tribulations, but the temptation to loose the sense of urgency and fall asleep. The master will return. Will the doorkeeper be awake? "Stay awake," Jesus warns. "What I say to you, I say to everyone: stay awake!" In the story that follows, just a bit later, his same group of intimates cannot stay awake while Jesus prays for his life. The great storm bursts on sleeping disciples.
The parable offers an artful example of how "apocalyptic" can function. The chapter promises that the story of Jesus is not over with his death and resurrection. There is more to come; God has work yet to do. The times ahead will be difficult. They are promising, in that at the end "all will see" and the elect will be gathered from the four winds. But the times will be like birth pangs. The new age will be born only through some agony. The harvest will come, in its time. The elect need to know how deeply into their lives the struggle will reach.
Yet the message is not just for the suffering. In the story, the disciples seem to have glimpsed the possibilities of the future. They ask for places of honor. They are resurrection people. They do not know how costly the future will be. It will take Jesus' life. The forces of darkness will not be defeated until the end. They have no idea about such matters, however, and after the Last Supper they sleep. Apocalyptic warnings seem to fall on deaf ears. The storm comes as a complete surprise, and the disciples, utterly unprepared, run away.
The chapter speaks of a future. Mark's Gospel speaks not just about a present and a presence. It anticipates a time that is not yet, full of dangers and promises. Such messages are appropriate to those whose world has closed in on them, who cannot imagine a future. They are also appropriate to those who are sleepy—unaware of the powers at work to tear apart the human family, from nations to communities to families. Christ has been raised, but the end is not yet. "Stay awake," Jesus warns.
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